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Friday, September 24, 2010

Only the Economy can save the Environment?

I am an avid reader of The Economist magazine. I guess I read not because they write lots of good stuff in there. I read it because a good friend ones told me it is the kind of stuff that smart people read. Before my conversion I read Newsweek and TIME. My friend convinced me that they were intellectually underwhelming.

This week The Economist is actually carried a very brilliant and important story, “The World’s Lungs”. And it is the lead story, and beautifully illustrated on the cover page.

Under the subtitle Reddy, steady, grow this article describes what is in my view is the Environmental Kuznets’s curve. The environmental Kuznets curve is a hypothesized relationship between various indicators of environmental degradation and income per capita. It is hypothesized that in the early stages of economic growth environmental degradation (deforestation, air and water pollution, soil erosion) is accelerated.

However, beyond a certain threshold level of income per capita (which will vary for different indicators) the trend of degradation is reversed. Essentially, the key argument is that at high-income levels and sustained economic growth environmental degradation can be halted.

But here is the argument that I find compelling. “Economic development both causes deforestation and slows it. In the early stages of development people destroy forests for a meagre living. Globalization is speeding up the process by boosting the demand for agricultural goods produced in tropical countries. At the same time, as people in emerging countries become more prosperous, they start thinking about issues beyond their family’s welfare; their governments begin to pass and slowly enforce laws to conserve the environment. Trade can also allow the greener concerns of rich-world consumers to influence developing-world producers”.

The Economist recognizes that we do not have the luxury to wait until Africa is wealthy before we can halt deforestation, halt sea level rise and stop dangerous climate change. You probably think they should figure that out. It is not that obvious to many of our human kind that there is such a thing as being too late.

It is heartening to see The Economist make such a strong argument for REDD. The wordy play is clever “Reddy, steady grow”. There is of course the familiar strategy around ecosystem service payments such as the Catskills example that is referred to in the story.

But I think The Economist screwed this great story when they slipped into the stereotypical portrayal of the developing world when they wrote, “The difficulties are immense. REDD projects will be effective only in places where the government sort-of works, and the tropical countries with the most important forests include some of the world’s worst-run places. Even in countries with functioning states, some of the money is bound to be stolen.”

I am not sure they had to add this. Many things are changing in the developing world. For instance, we have slowed down the rate of new AIDS infections; we have more kids attending schools in Africa today; we are closing major gender gaps in education, employment and political representation. But I am aware, and need no reminding that Africa aught to do better.

And I know African can and must do better.

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